Monday, January 25, 2010


The early Quakers (17th Century) didn't necessarily decide ahead of time to look like the guy on the Quaker Oats box, but they emphasised equality among the classes, shunned personal vanity for spiritual benefit, and tried to live simply.  This led to a pare-down of color and ornamentation.  Over time, fashions changed and Quaker clothing became more distinctive by contrast.  Until, for a while, plain dress was more or less a requirement for  faithful Friends.
I've always loved the nuances of brown and grey. 

Marguerite d'Angeli's sweet book, Thee, Hannah, is the story of a little girl in early Philadelphia who inwardly rebels against her odd, dull Quaker clothes. She's jealous of her her friend next door who dresses in bright silks and wears flowers on her bonnet. Hannah's epiphany comes when an escaped slave woman with a sick child sees Hannah and calls softly for help from her hiding place--she has identified the little girl as a "Friend" by the bonnet she wears.  The story conveys the urgency and danger of the rescue operation as Hannah's parents take the woman in, nurse her child, and see them smuggled on their final journey to freedom.  In the last scene, Hannah's bonnet feels "light and beautiful...She looked up at Mother with the Inner Light shining through her eyes." 

There are still some Quakers today who wear plain dress--in some cases they have developed an up-to-date interpretation so they don't appear to be in costume.  Others consciously look like old--fashioned Quakers.  Probably there's no better illustration of the concept 'fashion statement' than you get from perusing Jane's links!  When you consider the realities of economic injustice, it makes sense to pay attention to whether or not your clothing was created in a sweatshop-or worse. 

In my Quaker childhood in Philadelphia, traditional plain dress was a dim, quaint memory.  The bonnet I keep in a box on my closet shelf was handed down from a great-Aunt to my mother, and from her to me...It's a relic. You couldn't sweat or chase kids in it without wrecking it, and even though it was a special 'dress' bonnet, I think dressy occasions today are more strenuous than they were in 1840. For one thing, we dance at weddings.

But like Hannah, as a Quaker child, I was jealous of another little girl.  However, Ruthie was a Quaker.  She was a black girl with long, wavy hair, a doctor father, and an elegant mother who wore red suits and bright lipstick.  I put on my good coat and gloves for meeting, but Ruthie wore outfits--her hats matched her coats, she had enviable patent leather shoes, and dressy dresses. She snapped into a whole that eluded me.  If she went to First Day meeting looking so special, why couldn't I? 

Ruth's mother had grown up going to church, my mother told me, and in that culture, dressing up was part of the package.  We were Quakers of longstanding.  End of story. 

Damn.  But Quakerism is nothing if it's not flexible. My Quaker school dropped its dress code when I was in 7th grade--no more mandatory skirts.  We favored hiking boots, Indian cotton tops, and for dress, minis and platform shoes.  My untrimmed hair looked chewed. I paired hiking boots with an Indian cotton dress; thrift shopping was in vogue.  My father was horrified to see me in denim overalls--where he came from, a sign of abject poverty. But this was the early 70's--we privileged white kids wanted to look poor...and I at least believed that the revolution in fashion was part of the wave of change that would make society less hidebound, more just, more equal...forever.

Now you can buy ripped jeans at Nordstrom, and the kids at my daughter's Quaker school sometimes pair Ugg boots with Ed Hardy handbags that borrow imagery from graffitti artists and the Grateful Dead.  It's an age of Everything-Everywhere, pop culture a purple haze in the air we breathe.

And yes, I love clothes.  I enjoying pairing color, textures, layers. One of my favorite websites:   He celebrates clothing as an expression of the humanity behind it. 

In my fondest dreams, clothing would be alive: We'd don it as an extension of ourselves  rich with communication and personality in a way our mere physical features could never be: who cares whether one's legs are long or short, how tall we are...--But the print on that scarf  moves and whispers with invisible presences!

Maybe, even though my wardrobe is varied and brightly colored, in saying this I am not terribly far off from what the early Quakers believed...that a flame of silk could be, in an ideal world, a flame of Spirit.


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